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Wood and Climate Change

Wood And Mankind
Traditional Reliance On Wood
Introduction Of New Materials
Attitudes To Trees And Wood
Promoting The Use Of Wood
Climate Change
Global Warming
Causes And Effects
Cutting Emissions And The Kyoto Protocol
Wood To The Rescue
Forests As Carbon Sinks
New Zealand’s Forest Carbon
How Wood Can Balance The Carbon Budget
Enviornmental Impact of Products
Comparison With Other Materials
Versatility And Performance Benefits Of Wood
Good Wood On Show


Throughout human history, man has ruthlessly exploited the Earth’s natural resources, especially trees.  When human activity started to damage the environment, people realised that trees could help to 'repair' that damage.

It is widely agreed that trees must be protected but the effects of climate change can only be limited if the process of global deforestation is not just stopped but reversed.  The Earth needs to have a lot more trees and the only way to make this happen is to persuade people to use more and more wood.

Traditional Reliance On Wood

Forests provided shelter fuel and food for primitive manAt the beginning of human life on Earth, the land mass was almost totally forested - apart from the polar regions, deserts, high mountains and glaciers.

The first human tribes were nomadic ‘hunter-gatherers’.  The forests provided shelter, fuel and food (nuts and berries) and were also the habitat of hunted animals.  As skills developed, wood from the forests was used to make basic tools and implements, huts and small boats.

The invention of the wheel is generally accepted to have evolved from the use of successions of tree logs as a means of rolling heavy loads from place to place.  The monumental stones of Stonehenge are believed to have been transported in this way before being raised up into position using timber levers and scaffolding.


When people learned to grow food crops and keep herds of domestic animals, the forests were progressively cleared to make way for fields and permanent settlements.

Forests were cut down to make way for fields and villages

Grazing animals turned loose to forage in woodland devoured nuts and new seedlings – this caused large areas to be reduced to moorland and heath with just low-lying scrub vegetation like gorse and heather. In Western Europe, this factor alone was largely responsible for the massive reduction in forested areas during early history and up until the late 19th century when urbanisation then became the chief cause of deforestation.

As civilisation developed, people used wood more and more extensively for:

  • Buildings – not just dwellings and farms, but even the first cathedrals, castles and palaces were of timber construction and, although later rebuilt in stone, many still have impressive timber roof structures.
  • Transport – carts, carriages, boats and ships. The first railway carriages were also built from wood over an iron chassis.
  • Tools and machinery. Skilled craftsmen used wood with great precision. An amazing example is the first sea-going chronometer whose moving parts were all engineered from wood.
  • Furniture, panelling and domestic fittings.

As demand for timber increased so did the pressure on indigenous forests. From the 1700s European countries turned increasingly to newly established colonies for supplies of timber and strong markets developed for tropical species such as mahogany – much favoured for high quality furniture and fittings.

New Zealand was plundered for its native kauri timber

The British plundered the native kauri forests of New Zealand from the early 1800s onwards – first for ship timbers, then for gum and for general use. At that time, it made sense – the land had to be cleared to allow new settlers to establish farms. Fortunately, by the early 1900s the New Zealand Government realised that the resource was finite and, unless new plantations were established, there would not be enough timber to satisfy the requirements of an increasing domestic population, let alone for export.

For more information about the deforestation of New Zealand, visit the Forests and People section of this site.

Medieval hammer beam roof Trunch, Norfolk

.Eighteenth century mahogany furniture

Vast quantities of kauri were shipped from New Zealand’s Northland.

Introduction of New Materials

The industrial revolution of the 19th century followed by the technological and scientific revolution of the 20th saw the introduction of new sources of energy, new metals, the development of rubber, plastic and countless composite materials. After thousands of years of almost total dependency on timber as the material from which most things were made, wood was replaced in a multitude of applications over a period of little more than 100 years.

Log Fire Wooden cart wheel Sailing ship
Gas/Electric fire Alloys Ocean Liner

Timber was replaced by steel, plastic, rubber and other materials

Paper and packaging was the major growth area for wood during the 20th century. Millions of manufactured goods needed to be wrapped up and packaged for transportation, display in stores and for safe carriage to the home. The newspaper industry took off during the century and the enormous increase in demand for newsprint was a principal driver behind the establishment of plantation forests in Canada, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Australasia. Pulp and newsprint became valuable commodities on the global market.

For more information on the development of the pulp and paper industry in New Zealand, see the Process and Markets section of this website.

Attitudes to Trees and Wood

Long before global warming and associated changes in climate were recognised as a risk to the future of life on earth, awareness increased during the 20th century that the processes involved in manufacturing new materials, generating power and, above all, automotive transport, were not good for the environment. The high levels of atmospheric pollution in industrialised areas and cities caused respiratory disease and became a major public health risk.

Trees are good for the air – they take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen

It was already known that trees are good for the air – they take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. In London, the trees of the municipal parks were described as ‘the lungs of the city’ and increasingly trees were planted and protected, not for their potential timber value, but for the contribution they could make to air quality, bio-diversity and to enhance the natural beauty of gardens, parks and landscapes.

Arbor Days are now on the calendar in many countries – in New Zealand, June 5 has been designated as the day to celebrate the planting of native trees. The Department of Conservation describes Arbor Day as, "A reminder to New Zealanders that we can all play a part in protecting the native forests and wildlife which are left, so our children and grandchildren will be able to experience a remnant of this country as it once was."

Although such initiatives are welcome, they have no doubt contributed to the development of an attitude that is now widely held – many people believe that because trees are so important to the environment, it is wrong to chop them down and use them for timber (even when they have been grown specifically for that purpose). It is far better, many think, to use alternative materials instead.

Many people believe that they must ‘save trees’ and use
other materials instead.

So, having purchased aluminium or uPVC (unplasticised polyvinyl chloride) window frames and doors, many householders proudly show them off and boast that the products that consumed so much energy during manufacture had at least ‘saved a tree’.

Research has shown that this misunderstanding is still common and is a significant factor in wood's loss of market share to alternative materials. And so, the central objective of wood promotion programmes in many countries has been to convince consumers that using wood is, in fact, of great benefit to the environment.

Arbor Day, New Zealand, tree planting in Auckland
Steel framed houses,
Orewa New Zealand

Promoting the Use of Wood

In the late 1990s wood promotion campaigns were started up in many countries in a bid to secure and expand wood markets and to increase confidence in forest resource and sustainability.

The website addresses of many of these organisations are included in the Links page.

A pan-European movement – The European Wood Initiative – is working to promote the use of timber in both domestic and overseas markets. In Australia, Wood Lives On is a highly successful campaign, started in Victoria, to persuade people that there is nothing wrong with using native hardwoods that have been sustainably grown and managed. The campaign has been extended to New South Wales and now, following research by the Timber Development Association which has demonstrated a serious threat to the future of wood as a widely used material, there is a movement to set up a nationwide initiative.

While the initial drivers for all these programmes have been commercial interests, they have been empowered by environmental concerns and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On this count alone, they have all the ammunition they need to fight back against alternative materials such as steel, aluminium and concrete.

Many millions are being spent and the results are encouraging. In the U.K. Wood. For Good has specifically targeted the misunderstanding that it is better for the environment to ‘save trees’ rather than cut them down for timber. The latest research shows that the programme is changing public attitudes. Consumer perceptions were tracked from September 2000 to July 2003 during which time the number of those agreeing with the following statements has strongly increased:

Question 2000     2003
"For every tree cut, two are planted" 12% 24%
"Wood is a material for the future" 31% 48%
"The number of trees in Europe is increasing"    13% 23%
"I would like to use more wood in my home" 18% 40%

Credit: Wood. For Good

These are positive results but much more needs to be done – and very urgently – to increase the demand for wood to such a level that new commercial forest planting takes place on a scale that will have a corrective effect on the Earth’s atmosphere.

When this happens, there will be a double benefit – less dependence on energy-hungry materials will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Time is running out – people have to understand that the Earth needs a lot more trees, very quickly.

Up to 2005, there was no equivalent generic wood promotion initiative in New Zealand even though the downward trend in the use of wood in building has continued. In 1991 more than 5.5 million m3 of radiata pine was used in new building, this total has dropped progressively since then and the forecast is for it to be as low as 1.3 million m3 by 2041 – even taking into account predicted increases in levels of building activity.

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